Today’s ingredient post is brought to you by the Chef, in his own voice:
Pick an ingredient. Any ingredient.
Something simple. It doesnt have to cost a lot. Lamb shanks. Start with the best lamb you can find, hopefully from a local rancher, grown humanely. They taste better. Truly.
What goes well with lamb shanks? Garlic, thyme, mustard, mint, black pepper, sea salt, and red wine all simple ingredients as well.
How do you want to cook the lamb? Well, its the dead of winter, so plunking it down on the grill doesnt feel appropriate. Winter is braising weather, a long slow cook in a liquid.
Drop the lamb shanks in a big Dutch oven, or the biggest bowl you own. Chop up two carrots, two celery stalks, one large onion, and 5 or 6 cloves of garlic. They dont have to be perfect. Take your time but dont fret. Splash in a bottle of red wine and slide that pot into the refrigerator overnight.
Most of the best parts of cooking happen when you are not looking.
The next day, remove the shanks. Strain the red wine. Save the mirepoix. Pat down the lamb shanks and season them with sea salt and cracked black pepper. Get a sauté pan hot, screaming hot, almost hotter than you think is reasonable. (Turn on the fan above your stove.) Pour in some oil. Sear the shanks, browning them on all sides, making sure the oil doesnt spit on your wrists. Plop those seared shanks back into the Dutch oven, waiting.
Drain off the fat. Add in the mirepoix. Caramelize those vegetables they might flame up at first, so dont let it scare you which means theyre lovely warm and brown, softened and yielding. Throw in some thyme. Dollop in some mustard. Coat all the vegetables, and then toss in 5 or 6 sprigs of mint. Pour in the wine. (See how much of these tasks are the same, again and again?) Scrape up all the goodness from the bottom of the pan you dont want to lose that. Reduce. (So much of flavor comes from waiting for the food to do its mysterious dance, over which we have no control.) Pour in some stock, maybe lamb if you have it (you probably dont have lamb stock lying around the house) or chicken stock. Homemade is best, but sometimes the good boxed stuff is okay. Life is imperfect. Bring the liquid to a boil.
Plop in those shanks again. Cover the pot. Slide it into an oven (oh yeah, you should have preheated it long before, to 350°.). Let the shanks braise for 3 hours, during which time you can leave the kitchen to dance with your husband or write an essay or talk on the phone or contemplate the early dark afternoons. Come back and test the shanks. When you take the tongs to them, and the meat is tender all the way to the bone, take them out.
Youre almost there.
Set the shanks aside. Strain the liquid of all the vegetables and herbs, until its smooth and pure. Put it back on the burner and reduce. Wait. Reduce. Skim the scum from the surface as it arises. Taste it. Dont wait for a certain amount of time or until someone else says its done. Taste that sauce. It should taste like the mustard, the mint, the lamb, and the seasonings. And all the anticipation while you waited for it to be done.
It all started with the lamb.
Hi, it’s Shauna again:
After I fell in love with the Chef and started to learn to cook with him, I relaxed. And then I realized something that broke it all open for me: recipes are stories.
A recipe is the story of you standing in front of the stove, turning on the burners and chopping onions. Maybe theres music playing, maybe you have tension in your shoulders, maybe your kids are running around your feet. One of the burners isnt working and you only have red onions, not white. No one could ever cook the same meal from one recipe. Recipes are suggestions, verbal guideposts. Words can only be a finger pointing toward food on a plate.
I wish that I could write all recipes in this relaxed, narrative fashion the Chef just dictated. What would you think if they were?
And how do you like to cook lamb?
p.s. We’re both aware that the photograph above is of a leg of lamb, not shanks. But it’s so striking, the photograph of this lamb from Sea Breeze farms, and so delicious, that we had to share. If you’d like to see how we took this leg of lamb from raw to cooked, click here.